This article was originally published in the White River Valley Historical Quarterly Spring, 1991 and is reproduced here with the permission of its copyright holder. Further reproduction without the express permission of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.


"I am Nothing But a Poor Scribbler":
Silas Turnbo and His Writings

By Lynn Morrow

One can not study Ozarks history and culture for long without encountering the Silas C. Turnbo Papers, the single largest nineteenth-century Ozarks manuscript collection in a public repository. Turnbo’s writings comprise over 2,500 transcribed, typed pages in twenty-eight volumes housed at the Springfield-Greene County Public Library, Springfield, Missouri.

For over thirty years, hundreds, if not thousands, of genealogists have combed Turnbo’s pages for family history. Local historical societies have excerpted sections for deposit in municipal and county repositories. A host of newspapers and magazines have reprinted selected stories, but a clear history of the evolution of the collection itself is hazy.

Silas Turnbo (1844-1925) kept an unknown number of diaries during his career as a Confederate soldier, 1862-1865. In 1868 a fire consumed his parents’ house on White River in Marion County, Ark., including the diaries. Silas soon re-wrote much of his wartime experiences, but did not methodically return to them to author his regimental Civil War history until 1908. This manuscript was not published until Desmond Walls Allen privately printed it in 1988 and it is distinct from the larger collection of Turnbo’s Ozarks stories.

By 1872 twenty-eight-year-old Silas remained in the White River Valley, but began returning to his parents’ farms with men a generation older than himself and reminiscencing about old times; perhaps he began making notes and writing down some details this early as he did later—we do not know. His subsequent writings, however, occasionally recalled specific years, e.g., 1872, 1894, 1902, etc., when he heard a certain tale. During the 1890’s Silas and his family continued to live on a small bluff-top farm on White River. Silas’ farm was located just a mile above his parents’ Marion County, Ark., farm of 1859-1870 and three miles above the Taney County, Mo., farm of 1854-1859. It was during this time that he actively sought out old Ozark acquaintances and recorded remembrances of the past.

By the turn of the century, as small town newspapers commonly ran reminiscences of "old times," Turnbo became a regular contributor. It is possible that other regional writings may have influenced him. These would include the Goodspeed histories, History of Benton, Washington, Carroll, Madison, Crawford, Franklin, and Sebastian Counties, Arkansas, 1889, and A Reminiscent History of the Ozark Region, 1894; John Gaskins, The Life and Adventures of John Gaskins in the early History of Northwest Arkansas, privately printed in Carroll County, Ark., 1893; A.C. Jeffery, Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Early Settlement of the Valley of White River, Melbourne Clipper, 1877, reprinted in the Yellville Mountain Echo, 1899. From 1898 to 1907 Turnbo’s stories appeared irregularly in newspapers in Missouri at Taneyville, Forsyth, Gainesville, and Kansas City, and in Arkansas at Lead Hill, Harrison, and Yellville.

During these few years of local journalism, Silas, who had mortgaged his 160-acre farm, lost it in a foreclosure in 1902. Silas and his wife Tilda vacated the farm and moved in with a daughter’s family, Jess and Eliza Herd, at Pontiac, Mo., where they remained several years. Though impoverished, Turnbo remained determined in his endeavor to record the past, and his most productive years of collecting appear to have been 1902-1908 while living at Pontiac. As indicated in his writings, occasionally someone accompanied Silas on overnight travels in the Missouri-Arkansas border counties. That person is unknown, although it is a fair guess that it was a younger man who lived in the Pontiac area, e.g., H.E. Upton, his former brother-in-law, or Andrew Turnbo, Silas’ younger brother who lived on the banks of the Little North Fork River.

Silas finally had so many recollections that he decided in 1904 to privately publish a volume of tales, Fireside Stories of the Early Days in the Ozarks. In his preface he began, "This book and others to follow…"clearly indicated his hope for a series. In 1907 he published part two of his series, but it was the last. Silas sold his small books for fifty cents each, peddling them himself on his travels around the countryside. He received many complimentary letters from well-wishers, but plans for a third volume to be printed by the Harrison Times newspaper, perhaps the publisher of the first two, did not mature. All indications are that Turnbo’s venture was not a financial success and it did not relieve him from dependence on family for support.

By 1905 Turnbo began an eight-year correspondence with William E. Connelley, prolific author and publisher of western, Kansas and Civil War history books. Connelley was familiar with southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas as he traveled in the area in 1877 and lived in Springfield, 1888-1892, while pursuing the business of wholesale lumber, and in 1911 he enjoyed a brief railroad excursion through northwest Arkansas. He served 1914-1930 as secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.

The Connelley-Turnbo correspondence, 1905-1913, comprising 58 letters (39 by Turnbo, 19 by Connelley, and lists of testimonials favorable to Fireside Stories), is preserved with Turnbo’s original writings at the Springfield-Greene County Library. This selected correspondence reveals a modest and polite Ozarks man, fully aware of his limited writing skills, but hoping that Connelley, a widely known author and publisher, would edit and publish his work. The correspondence is also a chronicle of Turnbo’s many moves among his children, from Missouri to Oklahoma to New Mexico, and his stays in the Confederate Soldiers Home, Higginsville, Missouri.

The Connelley-Turnbo acquaintance began in June, 1905, when the former, responding to his reading of Turnbo’s Fireside Stories, Part One, wrote, "I am interested in your stories, because I am a Kentuckian, and was brought up in the mountains of Kentucky, and always heard hunting stories just like yours from my grandfather and other old hunters,"; Connelley also included two complimentary books for Turnbo to read.

From this introduction the two men corresponded about nineteenth-century events for the next eight years. Connelley, in the height of his own publishing career, regularly sent to Turnbo copies of his books, selected books of Connelley’s friends, issues of the Kansas Historical Society Collections, and Harold Bell Wright’s Shepherd of the Hills. The receipt of this small library of western and frontier lore encouraged Turnbo, in part, to continue collecting and to harbor optimism for further publication of his Ozark stories.

By December, 1905, Turnbo had a draft ready for a Part Three of Fireside Stories and plans for a Part Four, but realized his vision was ahead of sales; he stopped further publication plans, and actively sought additional Ozarks stories.

In Spring, 1907, Connelley offered to find a publisher for Turnbo and guide the future of Turnbo’s work. The ever-modest Silas admitted, "I am nothing but a poor scribbler without means and education" and was willing for Connelley to become his editor in rewriting, reorganizing, and even retitling stories, if necessary. All Turnbo asked for was joint copyright and a share of the proceeds, if any, after all expenses were met. Thus, in 1907, Silas continued to send drafts to Connelley from Pontiac, Mo., to work on revisions of stories in old newspaper formats, to comment on his two Fireside Stories, making commentary on the margins of the leaves, and summarizing his new collections.

At age sixty-three Silas was in failing health and often punctuated his correspondence with "If I live I want…." Turnbo sent copies of his portrait taken in Yellville, Ark., to Connelley and tried to encourage Connelley’s publishing plans by sending transcriptions of favorable comments of Fireside Stories from Ozarkers and Ozark immigrants in western states. For example, Ethan Smith, wrote in response to Turnbo’s stories in the newspapers forecasting, ""Turnbo is doing a real service to history...his style is to be commended--simple, direct in his expressions, he puts plain, neat clothes on his homely stories… When another century has left its foot prints upon the land of my boyhood home some Walter Scott will arise, search out from some musty garret these simple folklore tales and weave them into a romance." F.P. Kirkpatrick of Carrollton, Ark., continued, "His quaint way of putting things convinces me that he himself is one of the genuine old timers we all love so well."

In early July, 1907, Turnbo wrote that he had "near 500 copies" of Fireside Stories, but admitted that he had not tried to sell any books for months. He planned to leave several with White River merchants and continue working on more collecting and writing. He wrote, "I have penned their incidents down as they were given me," and by late July, 1907, Silas had given Fireside Stories, Part Three, to the editor of the Harrison Times for publication, but the manuscript remained unpublished. Continuing to work, Turnbo wrote Connelley that "I can write more regularly when the temperature turns cooler."

The summer heat did take its toll on the traveling gatherer of Ozarks lore. In August, 1907, he suffered a heat stroke and "went wild." Turnbo was four miles below Oakland, Ark., in Marion County when young Theodore Clark and his father Lee Clark discovered Silas lying unconscious on a road near the Pace Ferry crossing on White River. The elder Clark, a former Unionist, was hauling lumber in a wagon. He left his son to tend to Turnbo and drove his team to Oakland, summoned Andrew Turnbo, and a local doctor who drove his buggy followed by Andrew, to the stricken Silas. Theodore Clark had poured two buckets of water over Silas and after a couple of hours all returned to Oakland; Andrew took his older brother back to sister Elizabeth Herd’s house at Pontiac. Silas, writing later in the year, claimed he felt the ill-effects of his August heat stroke into late fall.

By November, 1907, after Turnbo had read several of Connelley’s complimentary books, Silas asked Connelley to be free in his editing of his Ozark stories. "You can arrange it in a way you think best, I leave it with your judgment. If the headings are not appropriate you are at liberty to change them and if you deem it proper you can consolidate the very short stories say two or three or more to one…It might be that some of the accounts are not exactly correct but I do not think that if they are not precisely correct they are not far wrong." Silas hoped to be finished with his Ozark stories soon and to begin writing a regimental history of the 27th Confederate Arkansas Infantry. He told Connelley that, "It would be best to have a copyright which I want done in both of our names."

In December, 1907, Silas wrote his "Much Esteemed Friend" Connelley. He sent more manuscript material that "completes nearly all the main part," except revisions and additions to his published Fireside Stories. Silas said, "Part of it is badly written and bad composition, some of it badly spelled. Hope you will excuse me for it." Silas now turned his attention to his partial Civil War diary and his "defective memory" and began his regimental history. Connelley wrote on December 29, 1907, that he thought he could publish the Civil War account as soon as Turnbo sent it. Silas responded that he would "keep battering away at the history of it until I complete it." In June, 1908, Turnbo mailed his finished Civil War chronicle from Cotter, Ark., to Connelley in Topeka, KS.

For six years, 1902-1908, Silas Turnbo had actively collected Ozarks lore, published two Fireside Stories, prepared a third volume, written his regimental history, and entertained hopes that Connelley would publish more of his material by sending unsold copies of Fireside Stories to Connelley for use as promotional books. During this time his base of operation had been his daughter’s home near Pontiac.

By fall, 1908, Silas and Tilda began alternating their stays among other children and Silas would receive permission for intermittent stays at the Missouri Confederate Soldiers Home, Higginsville, Mo.; The Oklahoma Confederate Home at Ardmore refused to admit him because he was not a native of Oklahoma. Silas soon spent several weeks, February 25, 1909-April 7, 1909 in Higginsville.

Over the next fifteen years Silas occasionally returned to the White River Valley, arriving and departing on the White River Branch of the St. Louis Iron Mountain Railway, later owned by the Missouri Pacific after 1917. Although Turnbo wrote in July, 1911, that it was "my intention to spend the rest of my days in the White River hills where I was born and reared," he would remain dependent upon kin folks for support. He split his time with daughter Elizabeth at Pontiac and sister Margaret Jones at Protem; daughters Mary Ann Jones and Fanny Jones (who had married brothers) at Broken Arrow, Hadley, and Jenks, Okla., and son James F. Turnbo in Montoya, New Mexico (son George Turnbo lived for a time at Big Cabin, Ok., but died in 1916). Sometimes his wife Tilda traveled with him, sometimes she didn’t.

In February, 1909, Connelley wrote that he had visited several metropolitan publishing houses in the upper Midwest and Northeast. He claimed that there was some interest among New York publishers for Turnbo’s stories, however, Connelley qualified potential optimism saying that, "the publishing houses were full of material which they had not yet used…but it depended entirely on the manner in which I sent the material to them." He added, "I feel sure that I can send it in such form that it will be pleasing to them." Meanwhile, Connelley mailed a copy of Sports Afield to Turnbo. At year’s end, December, 1909, Connelley sent his new book, Quantrill and the Border Wars as a Christmas present.

During the next several years the frequency of correspondence between the two men decreased. In Spring 1912, in Oklahoma, Silas worked briefly soliciting subscriptions for the Kansas City Star. He said the Star attracted his attention for its ban on whiskey advertisements (one of famous editor W.R. Nelson’s campaigns). Connelley in August, 1912, asked Silas for information on the location of good zinc or lead mining property for sale. A level-headed Silas responded that the larger sales were conducted only by speculators and that investments "did not pay out well."

In November, 1912, Silas moved again to the Confederate Home, Higginsville, Mo., where incidentally, he met Joe Connelley, a relative of William E. Connelley; he remained there until Spring, 1913. While in Higginsville Connelley sent him a copy of Harold Bell Wright’s Shepherd of the Hills, published in 1907. The Ozark Chronicler had not seen the book, in fact, he said, "I did not know that such a book was in existence." Silas had never traveled in northwest Taney or Stone counties, except by railroad. He concluded, "The language used [by Wright] is in good plain style. I like the book well."

Turnbo left Higginsville in mid-March, 1913, for son James’ residence in Montoya, New Mexico. Connelley wrote about being in Boston to seek a publisher for his new book, The Life of Preston B. Plumb. Finally, in April, 1913, Silas wrote, "Say, Mr. Connelley, if you will deem the articles I sent you worthy of notice…I would be glad to sell the articles to you…I have run short of means is the reason I propose this." Within a week Connelley replied, "I should like to have an idea of what the material is worth…I find that there is less and less money in books." Connelley went on to describe the increasing difficulties in getting publishers to commit themselves to projects. On April 24, 1913, Silas responded that he did not have any idea what his material was worth. He admitted to the large, expensive task of preparing his writings for any publisher, but considered Connelley a "fair and reasonable man" and thanked him for his many kindnesses. Silas’ immediate problem, however, was the lack of train fare to return to Oklahoma; his son James was badly in debt and could not provide the ticket. Turnbo suggested, "If you can advance me twenty-five or thirty dollars on it and if it is worth any more you can send the rest some other time. If you do not think it is of any value to you I do not want anything for it."

Connelley wrote on May 4, 1913, that he would try to send some money soon or in early June. He instructed Silas to write him when he was ready to leave New Mexico. Silas responded immediately that he was ready to go east and to please "send it at your convenience." Turnbo again complained of ill health, a lung ailment, and that he did not expect to live long.

On May 13, 1913, Connelley sent a money order for $27.50 with the "understanding that the manuscripts are to be mine from this date…they will have to be re-written to put them in shape for publication and I have already spent about $250.00 in having them copied on a typewriter and have not got them all copied yet." A week later Silas acknowledged the receipt of the money order—"Yes, all the manuscripts I have sent to you is yours. I have no claim on it now. I was glad to get the money." And in what appears to be Turnbo’s last attempt in promotion with Connelley, he enclosed more newspaper testimonials of praise for his stories including a lengthy transcription of a favorable review in the Kansas City Star by Rollins Bingham.

The last piece of paper in this historic correspondence between Connelley and Turnbo is an unsigned, undated one that says simply, "The Turnbo Manuscripts. Their purchase by William E. Connelley. They are now mine—all of them."

During the 1920s Connelley, for a time, advertised a dozen of his largest collections for sale; included were the Turnbo Papers. Connelley wrote, "Mr. Turnbo wrote for me hundreds of accounts of the Ozark Mountain region…these papers could not be replaced or re-written by any one now living."

The next glimpse of Silas comes in 1921 when he traveled by train from a daughter’s house in Oklahoma to Branson, Missouri. He disembarked in western Taney County and began walking east toward the homes of kith and kin in eastern Taney and western Ozark counties. This was one of many unannounced periodic appearances that Silas made around his neighborhoods. Elderly Ozarkers remember him in their youth coming down country roads with a walking stick and a red handkerchief that contained his personal belongings.

Some Turnbo relatives thought Silas was cursed with a strange idiosyncrasy—he never really worked in his later years, just mused about old times before the Civil War; later, some descendants thought anyone who ascribed importance to Silas’ writings must be a damn fool.

Silas, however, "knew who would treat him friendly," and always found a welcome hand at the John and Fanny Brightwell home; Fanny was distant kin to Silas through his mother’s Holt family. The Brightwell farm lay across the high bluffs and table land in southeast Taney county bordered on the south by White River. As usual, Silas came to stay a week. The family always saw him coming in the distance, kicking up small clouds of summer dust on the country road. Mrs. Brightwell then sent her children upstairs to prepare for Silas’ first duty—a bath and clean clothes.

Fanny assigned her young boys to provide company and transportation for "Uncle Clabe" during his stay. The youths led an old horse while Silas rode around the White River country. Hillary Brightwell (1912-), John and Fanny’s youngest and seventh son, remembers taking Silas to all the highest promontories in the neighborhood where he would dismount and sit for two or three hours gazing over the land, sometimes recording pages of notes. After several days both Hillary and Silas mounted horses, and under escort, Silas struck out for old friends on Big Creek; Hillary returned home with both horses.

Silas spent another short term in the Confederate Home in fall 1923, but lived his last days in Oklahoma still making notes, according to family tradition; he died at age eighty and was buried in Park Cemetery, Broken Arrow, in March, 1925, where Matilda preceded him in 1922. Whatever became of Silas’ notes and/or writings that he made after the sale to Connelley in 1913 is unknown.

William Connelley published his last book in 1922, but never got around to dealing with Silas’ Ozark collection. Connelley died in 1930 and his widow advertised an estate sale that was widely attended by collectors and book dealers. Connelley had acquired and deposited numerous items with the Kansas Historical Society, but he retained a considerable personal collection—one of which was the Turnbo Papers.

At the Connelley sale unknown purchasers acquired separately portions of the Turnbo Papers including Turnbo’s handwritten collection of stories and the Connelley-Turnbo correspondence; Turnbo’s handwritten 27th Arkansas Infantry history; a typed transcribed copy of the stories and of the regimental history; and the typed carbon copies of his stories and regimental history. The handwritten writings of Silas’ stories ultimately became the property of the H.M. Sender book Shop, Kansas City, perhaps the purchaser at Connelley’s estate sale.

After World War II these portions of the collection moved into various institutions. In Arkansas, the Turnbo Collection received the attention of J.N. Heiskell, editor of the Arkansas Gazette. Heiskell had a lifelong interest in books and history; he purchased rare items and collections from dealers and individuals throughout the U.S. and foreign countries. At some point he bought a copy of the Turnbo Papers and the handwritten manuscript of the history of the 27th Arkansas Infantry. Afterwards, he had an offer from Yale University to sell the Turnbo materials, but declined, as he did not want it to leave Arkansas. Heiskell died in 1972 and his immense Arkansas and Southern materials collection continued to reside in the Arkansas Gazette library. In 1985 negotiations between the Gazette and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock led to the transfer of Heiskell's collection, including the Turnbo Papers, to the archives of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock where they remain today.

In Oklahoma, a copy of Turnbo’s regimental history of the 27th Arkansas was accessioned as a part of the Phillips Collection, a forerunner of the current Western History collection, University of Oklahoma, Norman. It appears that professor E.E. Dale bought the Papers from Frank Glenn in 1947 or 1948 who may have purchased a copy from Connelley’s estate. The Oklahoma version is a typewritten carbon copy with no annotations.

In Kansas, Mrs. Eldora Farley, Kansas City, Kansas, sold a typewritten carbon copy of Turnbo’s stories and his regimental 27th Arkansas history to the Kansas State Historical Society in 1967. In Topeka these Turnbo Papers are now part of the larger William E. Connelley collection manuscripts department.

In Missouri, Marvin Tong, Ozarks native, Gainesville newspaper publisher, and amateur archaeologist was involved during the 1950s in White River Valley salvage archaeology prior to the impoundment of Table Rock Dam. In 1954 Tong became aware of the Turnbo Papers at Sender’s Kansas City book shop. In an effort to find some White River regional institution that would and could bring the collection back to the Ozarks, Tong alerted Ken Shuck, director (1951-1976) of the Springfield Art Museum. Although the collection was not in the usual acquisition field of the museum, Shuck managed to budget $750.00 for the purchase; all business between Shuck and Sender was by mail and upon the recommendation of Tong. What the museum purchased was Turnbo’s original handwritten stories. Shuck realized that they would not survive public handling and he set his librarians to typing them in their spare time which took several months.

Notice of the arrival of the Turnbo Papers in southwest Missouri circulated among journalists in the region. Rosco Steward, owner and publishers of the Ozarks Mountaineer, Branson, Mo., asked and received permission to publish some of Turnbo’s material. By October, 1955, the Ozarks Mountaineer began reprinting Turnbo stories and published a couple of dozen during the next four years.

For two decades interested genealogists and local historians used the Turnbo Papers at the art museum. Growing interest in them led to suggestions that they be removed to a public library where access might be somewhat easier. In 1976, supporters of the move promoted a Springfield city ordinance for the "transfer of the use, possession and control of that property, known as the S.C. Turnbo manuscripts from the Springfield Art Museum’s library collection to the Springfield-Greene County Library."

The boards of the museum and library sanctioned the proposal and the Springfield City Council moved in open session to transfer title of the collection to the library; hearing no opposition, title was transferred to the library. November 23, 1977, in a news release, the Springfield-Greene County Library announced the transfer and the local News-Leader carried the story in the press.

In 1980 Marvin Tong, after retiring as director of the Ralph Foster Museum, School of the Ozarks, Point Lookout, Mo., had moved to Ardmore, Ok. Tong gave copies of about one-third of the Turnbo stories to the Lyons Memorial Library, School of the Ozarks, and sent another set of these same copies to the Arkansas History commission, Little Rock. Both Lyons Memorial and the Arkansas History Commission retain these partial collections.

In 1987 Desmond Walls Allen, genealogist and current president of the Arkansas genealogical society, began reprinting Turnbo’s stories in several volumes using the Heiskell collection at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. She transcribed the stories from the UALR collection and made them available through her Arkansas Research firm, Conway, Ark. Allen also printed Turnbo’s History of the Twenty-seventh Arkansas Confederate Infantry in 1988, perhaps the single most coherent writing ever produced by Silas Turnbo.

At long last the inveterate chronicler of the upper White River Valley seems to be getting appropriate attention from an ever-widening audience. Appreciation of Silas Turnbo’s contribution to Ozarks history and folklore will become greater as time passes.

Copyright Lynn Morrow. All rights reserved. Reproduction by any means, physical or electronic, in part or in full, without the express permission of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.


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